Awe-Full

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.

They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.

Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.

And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.

That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.

But that’s not what happens in Acts.

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Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.

They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

They gather together in fellowship.

They break bread and feast with one another.

And, finally, they share their prayers.

But it’s more than that. 

We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.

On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray. 

But wait, there’s more!

And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.

Woah.

I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences. 

But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?

That sounds awful.

Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.

Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.

However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.

And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.

That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.

Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.

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This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.

Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God. 

Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money. 

But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.

Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people. 

It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.

God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.

However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.

It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,

Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.

Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.

But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?

They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.

Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.

This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.

Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise. 

Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop. 

Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.

Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.

Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.

And it drove people crazy.

It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!

And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve. 

Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.

But, haven’t we heard all of that before?

We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.

Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er. 

But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?

Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.

The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.

Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution. 

They just start living differently. 

Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.

And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?

Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?

Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?

Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.

We do things we know we shouldn’t.

We avoid doing things we know we should.

We care more about ourselves than other people.

Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.

And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway. 

It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”

That is radical.

Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.

Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.

It could change everything.

It already has.

Amen. 

Empty

Exodus 17.1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!

I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.

Fine, I’ll do it.

Hey Moses! I need a word.

We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!

And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!

Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!

Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…

A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.

So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

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That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:

A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…

Or:

A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…

Or:

Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!

And so it goes.

We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us. 

It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.

It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.

  It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.

And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present. 

Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.

It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.

And we break that one all the time.

We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short. 

They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.

The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.

But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.

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And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.

God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God. 

Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.

When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.

We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.

I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down. 

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The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.

This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.

We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”

But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations. 

The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.

And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.

But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.

At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s not the bucket he notices.

He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.

And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”

And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her. 

Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen. 

The Condition Of Our Condition

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 

This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.

It gets juicy.

The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack. 

Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.

The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.

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We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God. 

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.

Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.

Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.

Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.

Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.

But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.

Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.

Fair enough right?

Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”

There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.

Enter the snake, the next door neighbor. 

Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?

Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?

God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.

Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.

The seeds of doubt are planted.

You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.

And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.

And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.

What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?

No.

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They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.

This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others. 

And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.

And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.

But perhaps never is too strong of word.

But lets not skip to the end too quickly.

In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.

Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.

And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.

This is truly where everything went wrong. 

It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us. 

We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.

And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility. 

It hasn’t really been about God.

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This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways. 

One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.

And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not. 

But, that’s not the whole story. 

For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.

The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.

Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”

Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be. 

We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.

We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.

Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us. 

Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.

And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making. 

But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden. 

And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us. 

For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross. 

And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.

We Are (Not) Crucified

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

I was standing in line, along with everyone else, waiting for my chance to pass through customs. We were on our way to Guatemala to spend a week working in the remote highland area with an organization called HSP. The group had packed accordingly, we had read all the right scriptures that compelled us to go and love on our neighbors to the south, and honestly we were just really excited. We were college and high school students, and for some of us this would be our first time going out of the country.

It was the 4th of July, and you could tell from the sheer amount of red, white, and blue adorning just about everyone leaving the US. We joked in line and the buzz of anticipation was palpable in the air. I, just like most everyone else, was wearing a shirt with an American Flag prominently displayed on the front when I was my turn to step forward and hand over my passport.

I patiently smiled as the TSA worker looked at my picture, looked at me, looked at my ticket, and then looked at my shirt. Her gaze promptly returned to the desk in front of her, and without even looking up she said, “Just a piece of advice – I’d change my shirt if I were you.”

I stood in confused silence – I mean, why would I need to change my shirt?

And, as if reading my mind, the TSA agent said, “You’re traveling to a place where that flag doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Bible-and-Flag

Reading from the Apostle Paul in worship can be a difficult endeavor. His sentences tend to drag along and he is quite the fan of repeating himself. And taking the time to look at his argument, if we want to call it that, week after week after week is, possibly, an ill-advised proposition.

And yet, here we are.

Today, many of us, if not most of us, face the unenviable task of coming to grips with the fact that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel stories were recorded. That is, the earliest churches that sprung out around the Mediterranean had a better than good chance of meeting or reading from Paul long before they got a chance to hear or read from the evangelists.

Therefore, for those of us who think we can get closer to Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, that’s all good and fine. But to elevate the gospels as much as we do does a disservice to the work of Paul.

And, it’s not easy. I mean, Paul’s letters contain almost no references to the teachings of Jesus. He doesn’t recount the beauty of the Prodigal Son, or hammer home the words from the Sermon on the Mount, or even talk about the miracle of feeding 5,000 by the sea. Instead, it is the word of the cross that coveys the everything Paul wishes to share. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the message that reshaped reality and turned the world upside down.

That’s not to say that the stories of Jesus, those he told and those he lived out, are of non-importance. They are absolutely pivotal. And yet, we often read Paul today as if he took the simple messages of Jesus and complicated them into these opaque and intellectual arguments. When, in fact, the truth is quite the opposite: Paul distilled the gospel in a way that we would not have known without him.

A small, but potent example: Jesus tells the disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. If that’s all we’ve got then woe to the rich, because this is as good as its going to get. But Paul is adamant, throughout the letters, the Christ dies for us while we are sinners, that every single one of our sins are nailed to the cross whether we’re rich or poor, and the justification of the ungodly (that’s all of us) is the whole thing.

The work of Christ on the cross then becomes the lens by which the gospels come into focus, and not necessarily the other way around.

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Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is no easy thing to do. It wasn’t for Paul and it’s not easy for us. We are constantly in search of signs of demonstrated power so as to know where our allegiances should reside. We look up to the healthy and the wealthy as if they are more important and holier than the sick and the poor. We are so persuaded by, to use Paul’s words, the rulers of this age rather than the one who came to overthrow the powers and the principalities that compete for our attention.

I stood in the airport, displaying my red, white, and blue, and right before I boarded the flight, I took it off and put something else on. I spent the following week working with and among people whom I otherwise never would have seen, and I learned more than I could have dreamed.

Sure, I learned a lot about what it means to be a faithful disciple, and what it means to put faith into action, but the thing I learned the most about was what it meant to be an American. At least, what it meant to be an American to those who are not. 

That week in the Guatemala opened up my eyes to the long and sordid history of the United States with the government and civil war in Guatemala. I discovered how our country, in the name of freedom, instituted a new government in their country, assuming it would make for a more favorable relationship between the countries. But I also discovered how ravaged families and communities were by those actions, how many young men were indiscriminately murdered in a short period of time leaving behind a country that is still suffering the consequences of ours.

For me, it was a painful moment of transformation. For, in those conversation and interactions, in the tears and in the stories, I realized that, by the world’s standards, I am a citizen of empire. The country of my home and the country of my birth has bullied the rest of the world into recognizing our supposed superiority such that I was encouraged to remove my patriotic teeshirt before leaving the country.

In other words, I am exactly who Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 2. And so is every average American Christian.

We might enjoy spending our time bickering among ourselves about what President Trump said during the State of the Union, or Nancy Pelosi ripping up his speech, or who really won the Iowa Caucus, or any other number of things, all the while people across the world are living entirely different lives. 

How we carry ourselves in the world, whether at home or abroad, makes a tremendous difference because, whether we realize it or not, the Red, White, and Blue says a lot more about us than we think.

Even a sentence like that is troubling and confounding these days because the “us” in the “says more about us” is almost undefinable. As soon as we feel lumped into something we feel like we shouldn’t, we throw up our arms as if to say, “That’s not me!” And we very quickly and rapidly move into a posture of rigid defense and we stop up our ears from having to hear anything contrary to what we might think or even believe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the symbols of patriotism in the United States. Proudly displaying flags and colors and even documents like the Declaration of Independence are all fine. Except, for Christians, those patriotic symbols seem to mean more to us than the symbol of our faith: the cross. 

And it makes total sense. The cross is an ugly and deadly thing. We don’t want to be bombarded with thoughts of death and suffering and so we prefer to worship and idolize other symbols – symbols that appear more simple.

The cross is anything but simple.

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We are forever trying to reduce the complex questions of life into these manageable and simple solutions as if there really is a solution to every single problem in the world. And whoever comes up with the easy formulas for success are the people we worship the most. We do it with politicians we do it with preachers we do it with just about anybody.

If the solution can fit nicely into a tweet or a soundbite on the news then its good enough for the rest of us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are the masters of fate, and we therefore have nothing to be afraid of.

Except, it’s not true.

We are not in control. Fate is fickle. And there is plenty to be afraid of. 

The cross always hangs on the horizon, an ever present reminder that when things get tough, when things get too complicated, we all too often resort to violence and power and control in order to put things back the way we think they should go.

We did it with Jesus on the cross.

We did it with Guatemala.

We’re still doing it as a nation, and we’re all, in some way, shape, or form doing it in our own lives.

We think that it’s all up to us, and we’ve forgotten that the cross also stands to show us how Christ is already in the business of putting us back together, in ways we’d rather not if it were up to us.

But thanks be to God that’s its not up to us, because if it were all we’d achieve is more of the same instead of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. If it were up to us we’d only associate ourselves with the people who already think like us, and talk like us, and even look likes us instead of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that only have one thing in common: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians because he was devastated by how quickly they had fallen away from the complicated message of the cross. They had factionalized around different leaders that only told them what they already wanted to hear, instead of hearing the good news that sounds too good to be true: Christ died for us while we were sinners, which means we cannot remain as we were.

The church was not and is not meant to be like the world – It is a counter-cultural endeavor in which the powers and principalities and empires of this world are called into question. Knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified is but another way of articulating a different way of being in the world.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is crucified so that we don’t have to be. We don’t have to mount the hard wood of the cross because Christ has already done it for us. We don’t have to suffer the indifference of the world because Christ has come to conquer the world. 

Paul implored those first Christians to open their eyes and ears, to recognize how their beliefs and patterns and habits communicate what they valued and what they worshipped.

Today, how we live and move in the world with others makes all the difference as we, like Paul, strive to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Everything else is secondary. Amen.

Radical

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a lot of churches around here. I’ve mentioned before that, depending on which way I go, I can pass by 15 other churches on my way from my house to this church. All kinds of churches – big churches and little churches, protestant churches and catholic churches (well, only one of those). And they’re all different. On Sundays they are filled with different people listening to different pastors preached about different subjects. 

I wish there was only one church, a united single church within which all Christians across the globe could call home. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead we disagree on an almost limitless number of things such that new kinds of churches are sprouting up every day.

In fact there are so many different versions of church out there that we have something in the modern parlance called “church shopping.” If you simply don’t like what you hear on a Sunday morning you can try out a different church next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that until you find the perfect church.

I’m assuming that most of you are here because this church is as close as you’ve found to perfection.

And even though there is no one real thing that unites the multiplicity of churches, except for maybe Jesus, there is something around here that seems to bind them all together: Harvest Parties.

Have you seen the signs recently? Have you been invited by your neighbors? I haven’t been able to drive anywhere without big and bold letters letting me know that some Christian group is having a harvest party – and they’ve all been scheduled for the same weekend. This weekend!

So why are churches hosting harvest parties? I don’t know.

My best guess is it seems like a whole bunch of churches want to have Halloween parties without calling them Halloween parties. 

Perhaps they don’t like the idea of kids in costumes, or free candy, and putting the word “harvest” on a celebration makes it feel more wholesome.

And the problem with all of that is the fact that Halloween is a Christian holiday!

Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve – a liturgical service in the midst of the Christian year. And All Hallows’ Ever is just an older English way of saying All Saints’ Eve.

It occurs the evening before the first of November, and it is a time marked by Christians across the globe by giving thanks to God for the departed saints who came before us. In other churches this took place on Friday, but we’re celebrating All Saints’ today. And because it is fundamentally a remembrance of the dead and anticipating their resurrection, it’s obvious how it connects with the habits and practice of what we call Halloween.

When Christians get afraid of consumes and the candy, or try to move it or tame it or water it down, it just reinforces our greatest fear the we try to deny with every waking breath – the inevitability of death.

But Halloween, All Saints, they are prime opportunities for us to dance with death, not in a way that worships the darkness that frightens us, but to shout with a resounding voice that death will not win. We Christians are the ones who laugh at death’s power in this world, not because it doesn’t sting, but because we have already died with Christ that he might raise us into new life. 

Halloween is therefore one of the most Christian days of the year because our God is in the business of raising the dead!

Our God is a radical God!

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On All Saints the church witnesses to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives who are no longer alive. We read their names and offer time for reflective and prayerful silence. And we do all of that because in ways both big and small, the saints we remember today joined in the unending chorus of laughter in the face of death’s dark rays.

It is one of the more radical moments in the liturgical year.

Matched only by the radical words from the lips of Jesus read for us already.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

This topsy turvy announcement about the power of God’s grace contains tremendous blessings: If you are weeping now you God will turn it around to bring forth laughter – if you are suffering now for the Son of Man you will jump in joy for your reward is great in heaven.

But for as much as it presents a rose tinted view of a time not yet seen, Jesus continues the reversal. 

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The poor and hungry will have their fortunes reversed – that sounds like good news. But for those us us who are sitting well in our finances and happy with full bellies – its not so good. The rich, the powerful, the well regarded, their fortunes are going to be reversed as well. 

In this mini sermon from the gospel of Luke, Jesus overturns all of our previous misconceptions about the way the world works: The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the outcasts are brought in, and the powerful are cast out. We might struggle with these words, or perhaps we might consider them unfair, but God isn’t fair. For if God were fair, none of us would be good enough. 

God is inherently unfair – God is in the business of righting wrongs and even wronging rights – God raises the dead.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus lives according to the words of this sermon by going to those on the margins, consistently challenging the status quo, and convicting those who feel too certain they are right. Likewise, saints are those whose lives demonstrated a care for those on the margins, or standing up for those forced to the ground, and speaking for those whose voice were taken away. 

But, lest we leave today under the impression that saints are very, very holy people, a people whose lives cannot be matched, saints really are just like us. Again and again in Paul’s letter, he addresses the people as the saints who are in Christ Jesus. For Paul, being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. The assumption being that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for your faith. 

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The earliest saints, in fact, were the earliest Christian martyrs – people literally killed because of what they believed. And here we come to another often forgotten or disregarded piece of discipleship: Christianity is about more than being nice to people. Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another and the early Christians weren’t martyred for suggesting we all just get along with each other.

They were killed for being radical. 

They were killed for saying things like the first will be last and the last will be first. 

They were killed because they believed in worshipping God rather than Caesar, rather than the King, rather than the President. 

And that’s not every getting into all the stuff about how we are supposed to relate to one another: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

And that comes into direct conflict with the powers and the principalities. To say those things aren’t the end all be all is to start carrying our own crosses up to Golgotha. 

Whether its Rome, or America, or our bosses, or our spouses, or whoever – we are forever being told who we are. We define ourselves by the definitions given to us by others, and more often than not from the others with power. When we look in the mirror we see not what we see but we see what we’ve been told.

But for Christians, none of us know who we really are until God tells us.

And that kind of behavior drives the powers and principalities crazy! As those who follow Jesus we refused to be defined by others. We are more than the people we vote for, or the team we cheer on, or the embarrassing story that stayed with us for years. We are not those things. We are who we are because of God. 

Being a saint, then, is really nothing more than confessing we have been saved by the One who made us part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let others tell us who we are.

All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to celebrate the lives and the deaths of those who were here before us. It is not an accident the the text assigned for today ultimately has to do with death. Living according to the words of Jesus is a radical thing. It is also a total thing.

The “All” in “All Saints’” is powerful. It is the church’s proclamation that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we do as a church. You don’t have to have lived the perfect life at the perfect church to be a saint. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, its the admission that we are far from perfect. But Christ isn’t done with us yet. 

Chances are, none of us here will ever be killed for our faith. Part of that stems from the fact that our nation and our faith are tied up with each other, contrary to the obsession with the separation of church and state. And another part of it stems from the fact that when we read these challenging words from Jesus we imagine them as some hopeful future instead of them being a command. 

Because if we really lived according to these words, people would try to kill us.

Thanks be to God then, that all of us here have already died. The waters of baptism brought us into the very heart of Jesus’ crucifixion that we might come out on the other side of the tomb with him. 

As the culture around us starts to turn toward Thanksgiving and an overly commodified version of Christmas, today we are reminded that those who are looking for happiness in a bigger house or a larger paycheck or a better spouse will discover that those things will never make us happy. There will always be a bigger house, more lucrative jobs, and people with power. 

On All Saints’ we cannot ignore the great cloud of witnesses who have pointed us to a different way, The Way we call Jesus. We know not what tomorrow will bring but we do know that God in Christ is in the business of making all things new, of raising the dead, and only God can tell us us who we are. Amen. 

Know Thy Vocation

Proverbs 10.4

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 

When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.

They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.

I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”

The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.

After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices: 

1. Public Speaker

2. High School English Teacher

3. Politician

We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter. 

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I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.

Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.

When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect. 

When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?

During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised. 

All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.

It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.

Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.

Everything about the story is wrong. 

We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.

Talk about being surprised.

But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.

Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.

And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”

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Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can. 

That’s not what they expected him to say. 

Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”

Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things. 

But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.

When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.

The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.

Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God. 

God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.

When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives. 

  His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…

Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.

Do not sleep or yawn over your work.

Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.

Spare no pains.

Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.

Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.

Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus. 

And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.

There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.

Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.

The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.

Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.

In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself. 

Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom. 

Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift. 

And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.

We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us. 

And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around. 

Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross. 

God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen. 

Lead Us Not Into…

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

I’ve often talked about the role that commentaries play on the development and proclamation of a sermon. Perhaps the text is very familiar and the pastor desperately wants to find a new angle, or the passage appears to difficult to tackle and the preacher just wants all the help the preacher can get.

That’s when the commentary gets dragged down from the shelf and the pages start flying.

Commentaries can be an invaluable tool when doing this thing I do every week, but sometimes they just fall flat.

I looked through just about every single commentary in my office this week in preparation for this sermon. After all, the temptation of Jesus is indeed one of those stories that lots and lots of people already know. And, to further complicate matters, the devil is in it. 

It’s familiar and it’s difficult. 

What’s a preacher to say about a story most of us know that contains a character most of us ignore?

So I pulled down the commentaries and started reading…

Just like Jesus, we will all face trials and temptations, and we need to do everything we can to resist them in whatever way they present themselves.

When we read the words from the Devil, it is a reminder that we need to take on a posture of intentionality to rebuke his destructive advances.

We read this story at the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we need to let go of the things that are keeping us from being with God.

Did you notice anything there? In almost every commentary I read about the temptations of Jesus, they are ultimately focused more on our temptations than on those faced by Jesus.

Or, to put it very plainly, the commentaries make it seem like Jesus is an after-thought in the never ending battle against our vices.

Or still yet another way to look at it – God helps those who help themselves.

Except, this isn’t a story about us.

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On Ash Wednesday many of us gathered here in the sanctuary and we heard those frighteningly familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those ashen cross on our foreheads were the first steps into a season that is often marked with sacrifice, repentance, and fighting against temptations.

There are plenty of things we can, or perhaps should, give up.

4 out of every 10 adults in America are obese. Maybe we should go on a collective diet?

The average American has $5,331 in credit card debt right now. Maybe we start budgeting our money?

I could go on and on and on.

But perhaps today can be a sobering reminder, akin to the reality check that Ash Wednesday provides, that we aren’t really capable of resisting temptation. Maybe, if we abandon anything this season, it should be the notion that giving something up it makes us better people. 

Perhaps we should ditch the belief that life is up to us.

If Lent is at all about us, its about how far off we are from God, how unlike God we are, and yet God choose to be like us in order to rectify the wrongness within us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure I’m grateful to Luke for this story about Jesus in the wilderness. It’s certainly dramatic, but the longer I read it, the worse it makes me feel.

The Devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, then do something!

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, there are people starving for food, they’re suffering from the chaos of a world that could be incredible if someone with enough power would smack them into shape, they’re wandering around in darkness waiting for God to give them any definitive demonstration that they can hold on to.”

It’s like the devil takes a good look at Jesus and realizes, “If we combined our powers we really could get this whole show on the road.”

This story has the power to bring me down in the dumps because in it I hear myself asking Jesus some of those same questions. I think I know what would be best for the world, and if Jesus could just get with the program, my program, we could fix all this brokenness around us.

Take away the fact that Jesus is Lord, and in this little vignette, he looks kind of like a jerk. Why won’t he work a little miracle and bring about some food?  Why won’t he just take control of the world? Why won’t he give the world a taste of God’s saving power?

But, those questions are our temptation, and they only go to show how far we are from the divine. It shows how this story is just like any other conversation between two people who simply cannot understand one another.

The devil is operating out of a world view that is remarkably like our own – he wants a demonstration of power and wants immediate gratification.

Jesus is operating out of a kingdom view that is totally unlike our own – he knows the myth of progress to which we are so inextricably tied.

If we were really capable of fixing this world, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

Of course the hungry should be fed, and the wanderers should be led, and the hopeless should be given hope. But we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, a really long time, and what do we have to show for it?

We are so much a people of the world, rather than the kingdom, that it is nearly impossible to see the story from any point of view other than the devil’s. Again, if you take away the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, take away the fact that we know the end of the story, the devil’s questions sound pretty good!

That’s crazy.

It’s a crazy thing to realize, here at the beginning of our own Lenten journeys, that the person with whom we have to most in common in this story isn’t Jesus, but the devil. 

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But the craziest thing of all is that Jesus eventually does all of the things the devil tempts him to do. Not out there in the wilderness, but by the time we reach the end of the gospel we discover that he does them in his own time and in his own way.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy his hunger – but later he turns some bread and fish into a buffet for 5,000. Which, incidentally, only incites the crowds desire to him become a version of who the devil tempts him to become.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to worship the devil to gain control of the world – but later he ascends to rule over the earth, not with a powerful and war-like regime, but from the vulnerable arms of the cross.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to test God’s willingness to demonstrate his saving power – but later he dies and is buried in the ground, only to rise again through God’s power in the resurrection.

How strange a story this is for people like us to read. In it we discover that the God who took on flesh to be like us is still completely unlike us. We catch a glimpse of the totality of the gospel in just a few verses. And we even celebrate Jesus’ ability to resit temptation even though he eventually makes all of those tempted realities real in his own way.

One of the worst temptations during the season of Lent is to puff ourselves up as if we are above and beyond the temptations that are thrown at us by the world. 

The hard truth of the gospel is that even if we are able to resist a temptation or two, part of our human nature implies that we will succumb. We will eat the food we know we shouldn’t, we will hurt the people who deserve better, and we will foolishly believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, for others, for the world, and even for Jesus.

I like to think, on some days, that I’m a pretty okay person. I like to believe that given the right set of circumstances I will make the good and right choice. I like to imagine that there is more goodness in me than there is badness.

But, there are parts of me that are indefensible. 

I have made wrong choices.

I have hurt the people I love.

I have thought myself greater than I really am.

At the heart of Lent is a willingness to look in the mirror and realize who I really am.

And if pastoring has taught me anything, there are parts of each of you that are indefensible as well.

A particular word that stung someone so badly they haven’t talked to you in years.

A receptive omission of something seemingly insignificant that became a wedge between you and your partner.

A foolish assumption that elevated you above everyone else and resulted in nothing but more and more resentment.

There is a frightening truth in the words that we often read in church without giving them much thought: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

There are parts of us that simply cannot be defended.

And, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, if we don’t know that to be true, then we do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of sin, and temptation, and death, then we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the One who justifies the ungodly.

This Jesus, the one who rebuffs the temptations of the Devil, is the one who comes not to make our lives better or give us the strength to resist our own temptations. Jesus comes to live and die and live again to justify us. 

Take a good hard look at the cross, survey it in all of its wonder and violence, it is the sign for you and me that our God is a God of impossible possibility. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness it is a harrowing reminder that Jesus does for us what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

He delivers us from evil. Amen. 

The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

If

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 

I worry about the future of our church.

Not just Cokesbury, but also the greater United Methodist Church.

We have been debating for decades about the inclusion or exclusion of gay individuals from the church. And in a week, representatives from the entire denomination will be meeting in St. Louis to discern and decide the future of God’s church.

At the heart of the matter is our church’s doctrine that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Some want the language to remain, and others want it gone. 

I worry because I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.

Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that homosexuality goes against the plain truth of the Word of God. As one preacher warns, “In overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn by making special rights for gays and lesbians, we have taken steps in the direction of inviting the judgment of God upon our land.”

This step of gay rights that some are arguing for in the church is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days. 

Attempts to change our church doctrine represents a denial of all that we believe in, and no one should force it on us.

It’s not that we don’t care about homosexuals, but it’s that our rights will be taken away.

Unchristian views will be forced upon us and our children for we will be forced to go against our personal morals.

There are people who are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order, it is not in line with the Bible, do not let people lead you astray.

Those leading the movement toward change do not believe the Bible any longer, but every good, intelligent, and orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know what is happening is not of God.

When you run into conflict with God’s established order you have trouble. 

You do not produce harmony.

You produce destruction and devastation.

Our church is in the greatest danger that it has ever been in in its history.

We’ve gotten away from the Bible.

The right of segregation…

Hold on, let me find my spot…

The right of segregation is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures both by precept and by example…

I’m sorry everyone. I brought the wrong sermon with me today.

I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century.

Everything I just read to you are quotes from white preachers in the 1950s and 60s who were in support of racial segregation.

All I’ve done is simply taken out racial integration and substituted in with the phrases about homosexuals in the church.

I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing from people in the United Methodist Church have sounded so similar that I got them confused. 

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If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Paul was worried about his comrades in faith in Corinth – that’s what the whole letter has basically been about. They were apparently drifting away from the path of truth and life he Paul, though his words, attempts to steer those new to the faith back to the way that is Jesus the Christ.

He caught wind that they were no longer sharing the eucharist together and he writes about the body of Christ with many members. He learned that they were engaging in internal competitions about who was the best and he address how Christ alone is the head of the body. 

And now, toward the end, he confronts the real heart of the matter – questions about the resurrection of the dead.

Paul is screaming through the pages of his letter: “This is it you Corinthians! It’s this or nothing. Everything depends upon whether or not this is true.”

As I said last week, for Paul this was of first importance: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again.

That is the story that captivated much of the Mediterranean world in the decades following the event. It is the story that is still catching hold of new Christians all across the world.

It is a profound announcement about things that happened.

It’s not a collection of generic religious principles and laws.

It’s not a list of things to do.

The very heart of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This passage, though known and often quoted by Christian-types, has a finality and punch to it that can come across as rather frightening.

Paul puts it like this: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools and we are still in our sins.

The power of Paul’s wisdom is often overlooked in the church today. We are far more captivated by the likes of Noah and his Ark and David fighting Goliath than we are with a first century man who made it his life’s work to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The great heroes of the Bible are more interesting than the letters of correct theology.

And yet, we forget, that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel accounts were written down.

We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, Christianity would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to the gentiles like us.

We forget that Paul is the one who handed on to us what was of first importance.

And among the things he shares with the Corinthians, this is of the utmost: 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been destroyed and Christian preaching becomes nothing more than endless delusions that offer lies and empty gestures.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with falsehoods and expect people to live into a new world order that doesn’t exist.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then all we can offer the world is a pious lie that veils people from the truth that we are powerless and truly alone.

But, brothers and sisters, be assured: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God. 

Death has been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ. 

This is not something we want to be true, or need to be true, or imagine to be true.

It is so far beyond what we could want, need, or imagine.

It is simply the truth of God’s power and majesty and might.

Jesus was raised from the dead.

One of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not contingent on whether we believe it or not. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still resurrected. 

But what we do, what we stand for, is only intelligible because Christ is raised. 

It is down right foolish to teach our children to turn the other cheek unless the resurrection is real.

It is absurd to give our money to something like a church unless the resurrection is real.

It is truly irresponsible to pray for and love our enemies unless the resurrection is real.

And yet, the church, and to be specific, the United Methodist Church is drawing near to the edge of a cliff about the definition of what is or is not compatible with Christian teaching.

I’ll be the first to admit that Paul mentions a lot of sins throughout his letters, aspects of living that draw us away from God almighty. 

Some of them include not caring for the poor and the foreigners in our midst, others are focused on the sin of letting women speak in church, and some of them are about how we engage with others in a sexual manner.

But here in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul talks about the most important aspect of our faith, the only sins that he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – all of them.

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It is crazy that our church has the potential of going up (or down) in flames in the next two weeks, all over an argument about what does and what does not count as a sin when every one of our sins has already been up in the cross of Jesus Christ! 

Paul says that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins, which is another way of saying that since Christ has been raised from the grace, we are no longer in our sins. 

Paul, in another letter, is quick to claim that nothing can separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ and that there is nothing we can do, truly nothing, that can negate what Christ has already done for us. 

But we’d rather spend our time arguing about who is living in sin, and who isn’t. We want to know where the line is drawn in the sand and we want to know, for sure, which side we are on, and which side they are on.

We’ve done it before.

Slavery.

Segregation.

Women’s subordination.

All theological positions about what was or wasn’t sin that people fought tooth and nail over.

We’re doing it right now with regard to homosexuality.

And the saddest thing of all is that this isn’t the late debate we will have.

Whether we’re progressive or traditional, whether we lean one way or another, according to Paul it doesn’t matter how correctly we interpret the bible, nor does it matter with whom we share our bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that Christ died and rose for us and we are no longer in our sins.

That doesn’t give us the freedom to go and do whatever we want.

But it does free us from the self-righteous judgments we make against people with whom we disagree.

God’s grace is the unmerited gift that is not dependent on our beliefs or our piety or our moral accomplishments.

But we live in a world of the Law. We so desperately want to know what is right and what is wrong, because we want to know that we’re right so that we can lord it over those who are wrong.

In the end, the only thing the Law shows us is that we all fail to be obedient. 

But the Law isn’t the end – in fact Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law.

That’s the story of the gospel. 

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God got down from the throne, and condescended to our miserable existence to rescue us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God broke forth from the tomb and free from the chains of death so that death would never be the final word.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God died and lived again so that we would no longer be defined by our sins.

There is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.

The Law will never do more than condemn us in our sins, until that incredible and truly transformative moment while we were still sinners, grace shows up in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from every sin without a single condition attached.

The gospel is not about if we do something or not.

The gospel is not about if we love someone or not.

The gospel is not about if people are compatible or not. 

The gospel is the extravagant, outrageous, and even absurd gift of grace, love, and resurrection.

Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. Amen. 

Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen.